Vatican City Some 80,000 pilgrims in flowered lei, feathered headdresses and other traditional garb flooded St. Peter’s Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI added seven more saints onto the roster of Catholic role models in a bid to reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it’s lagging.
Two of the new saints were Americans: Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint from the U.S., and Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii.
It seemed as if a third saint, Pedro Calungsod, a 17th century Filipino teenage martyr, drew the biggest crowd of all, with Rome’s sizeable Filipino expat community turning out in flag-waving droves to welcome the country’s second saint.
In his homily, Benedict praised each of the seven as heroic and courageous examples for the entire church, calling Cope a “shining” model for Catholics and Kateri an inspiration to indigenous faithful across North America.
“May the witness of these new saints … speak today to the whole church, and may their intercession strengthen and sustain her in her mission to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world,” he said.
The celebrations began at dawn, with Native Americans in beaded and feathered headdresses and leather-fringed tunics singing songs to Kateri to the beat of drums as the sun rose over St. Peter’s Square.
Later, the crowds cheered as the pope read out the names of each of the new saints in Latin and declared that they were worthy of veneration by the entire church. Prayers were read out in Mohawk and Cebuano, the dialect of Calungsod’s native Cebu province, and in English by a nun wearing a lei.
“It’s so nice to see God showing all the flavors of the world,” marveled Gene Caldwell, a Native American member of the Menominee reservation in Neopit, Wisconsin, who attended with his wife, Linda. “The Native Americans are enthralled” to have Kateri canonized, he said.
The canonization coincided with a Vatican meeting of the world’s bishops on trying to revive Christianity in places where it’s fallen by the wayside.
Several of the new saints were missionaries, making clear the pope hopes their example even though they lived hundreds of years ago will be relevant today as the Catholic Church tries to hold on to its faithful. It’s a tough task as the Vatican faces competition from evangelical churches in Africa and Latin America, increasing secularization in the West and disenchantment due to the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and beyond.
The two American saints actually hail from roughly the same place what is today upstate New York although they lived two centuries apart.
Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” Kateri was born in 1656 to a pagan Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother. Her parents and only brother died when she was 4 during a smallpox epidemic that left her badly scarred and with impaired eyesight. She went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries. But she was ostracized and persecuted by other natives for her faith, and she died in what is now Canada when she was 24.
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